Archives

United Nations

YC startup Felix wants to replace antibiotics with programmable viruses

Right now the world is at war. But this is no ordinary war. It’s a fight with an organism so small we can only detect it through use of a microscope — and if we don’t stop it, it could kill millions of us in the next several decades. No, I’m not talking about COVID-19, though that organism is the one on everyone’s mind right now. I’m talking about antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

You see, more than 700,000 people died globally from bacterial infections last year — 35,000 of them in the U.S. If we do nothing, that number could grow to 10 million annually by 2050, according to a United Nations report.

The problem? Antibiotic overuse at the doctor’s office or in livestock and farming practices. We used a lot of drugs over time to kill off all the bad bacteria — but it only killed off most, not all, of the bad bacteria. And, as the famous line from Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park goes, “life finds a way.”

Enter Felix, a biotech startup in the latest Y Combinator batch that thinks it has a novel approach to keeping bacterial infections at bay – viruses.

Phage killing bacteria in a petri dish

It seems weird in a time of widespread concern over the corona virus to be looking at any virus in a good light but as co-founder Robert McBride explains it, Felix’s key technology allows him to target his virus to specific sites on bacteria. This not only kills off the bad bacteria but can also halt its ability to evolve and once more become resistant.

But the idea to use a virus to kill off bacteria is not necessarily new. Bacteriophages, or viruses that can “infect” bacteria, were first discovered by an English researcher in 1915 and commercialized phage therapy began in the U.S. in the 1940’s through Eli Lilly and Company. Right about then antibiotics came along and Western scientists just never seemed to explore the therapy further.

However, with too few new solutions being offered and the standard drug model not working effectively to combat the situation, McBride believes his company can put phage therapy back at the forefront.

Already Felix has tested its solution on an initial group of 10 people to demonstrate its approach.

Felix researcher helping cystic fibrosis patient Ella Balasa through phage therapy

“We can develop therapies in less time and for less money than traditional antibiotics because we are targeting orphan indications and we already know our therapy can work in humans,” McBride told TechCrunch . “We argue that our approach, which re-sensitizes bacteria to traditional antibiotics could be a first line therapy.”

Felix plans to deploy its treatment in those suffering from cystic fibrosis first as there is no cure for this disease, which tends to require a near constant stream of antibiotics to combat lung infections.

The next step will be to conduct a small clinical trial involving 30 people, then, as the scientific research and development model tends to go, a larger human trial before seeking FDA approval. But McBride hopes his viral solution will prove itself out in time to help the coming onslaught of antibiotic resistance.

“We know the antibiotic resistant challenge is large now and is only going to get worse,” McBride said. “We have an elegant technological solution to this challenge and we know our treatment can work. We want to contribute to a future in which these infections do not kill more than 10 million people a year, a future we can get excited about.”

Long term room-rental platform Badi launches its service in NYC

As things stand in many countries, renting houses and whole apartments is relatively straightforward, if you can afford it. But trying to find rooms in those apartments and houses to rent has been chaotic for many years and relies on hugely informal networks. Some startups have launched in recent years to address this problem of finding roommates and rooms for rent as the market becomes more competitive.

Roomi (NYC, raised $17M), Roomster is in NYC, and then there’s SpareRoom. All have appeared to try and capture this growing market. And of course, they have Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace as competitors. 

Then there are other co-living companies include Common, Ollie, Quarters, Startcity, X Social Communities, and WeLive.

Backed by $45 million from U.S. and international investors like Spark Capital and Mangrove Capital, including $30 million from Goodwater Capital as their first investment in a Spanish startup, Badi is a Spanish-born startup (founded in Barcelona by Carlos Pierre) which is a long-term room rental platform, operating in cities like London, Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin.

It’s now launching in New York City, after claiming to have surpassed more than two million users in Europe. Badi says its web and mobile app now features over 300,000 listings. After soft-launching in November of last year, it claims to be growing booking requests by 370%. 

Pierre says: “Every major city around the world is suffering from overcrowdedness and increasing rent prices. The strong interest from the participants in our beta group alongside the findings from our 2020 survey on NYC indicates that city dwellers are warming up to the idea of sharing and co-living arrangements.”

During its beta in NYC, Badi found that the majority think co-living is a growing trend and shared living spaces with shared resources are viewed favorably.

Badi’s main pitch is that it provides a safe and secure communications channel for users to get to know potential roommates without an intermediary, using a visual verification tool for ensuring renters profiles and photos of the rooms and amenities.

It’s serving a need. The United Nations projects that 2.5 billion people will live in cities by 2050. This will cause rents to skyrocket, of course.

Elon Musk says all advanced AI development should be regulated, including at Tesla

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is once again sounding a warning note regarding the development of artificial intelligence – the executive and founder tweeted on Monday evening that “all org[anizations] developing advance AI should be regulated, including Tesla.”

Musk was responding to a new MIT Technology Review profile of OpenAI, an organization founded in 2015 by Musk, along with Sam Altman, Ilya Sutskever, Greg Brockman, Wojciech Zaremba and John Schulman. At first, OpenAI was formed as a non-profit backed by $1 billion in funding from its pooled initial investors, with the aim of pursuing open research into advanced AI with a focus on ensuring it was pursued in the interest of benefiting society, rather than leaving its development in the hands of a small and narrowly-interested few – ie. for-profit technology companies.

At the time of its founding in 2015, Musk posited that the group essentially arrived at the idea for OpenAI as an alternative the the less effective course of simply either “sit[ting] on the sidelines” or “encourag[ing] regulatory oversight.” Musk also said in 2017 that he believed that regulation should be put in place to govern the development of AI, preceded first by the formation of some kind of oversight agency that would study and gain insight into the industry before proposing any rules.

In the intervening years, much has changed – including OpenAI. The organization officially formed a for-profit arm owned by a non-profit parent corporation in 2019, and accepted $1 billion in investment from Microsoft along with the formation a wide-ranging partnership, seemingly in contravention of its founding principles.

Musk’s comments this week in response to the MIT profile indicate that he’s quite distant from the organization he helped co-found both ideologically and in a more practical, functional sense. The SpaceX founder also noted that he “must agree” that concerns about OpenAI’s mission expressed last year at the time of its Microsoft announcement “are reasonable,” and said that “OpenAI should be more open.” Musk also noted that he has “no control & only very limited insight into OpenAI” and that his “confidence” in Dario Amodei, OpenAI’s research director, “is not high” when it comes to ensuring safe development of AI.

While it might indeed be surprising to see Musk include Tesla in a general call for regulation of the development of advanced AI, it is in keeping with his general stance on the development of artificial intelligence. Musk has repeatedly warned of the risks associated with creating AI that is more independent and advanced, even going so far as to call it a “fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.”

He also clarified on Monday that he believes advanced AI development should be regulated both by individual national governments as well as by international governing bodies, like the U.N., in response to a clarifying question from a follower. Time is clearly not doing anything to blunt Musk’s beliefs around the potential threat of AI: Perhaps this will encourage him to ramp up his efforts with Neuralink to give humans a way to even the playing field.